Pickup trucks are changing - they’re getting getting bigger, faster and more luxurious - but Americans’ devotion to the four wheelers is becoming an auto industry constant.
While sport utility vehicle sales have surged and car sales have fallen, pickup sales have remained a steady 2.7 million or more for four straight years. About one of every five new vehicles sold is a pickup.
The Ford F-Series truck in 1997 was the best-selling vehicle in America for the 16th straight year. F-Series sales nearly doubled those of the top-selling car, the Camry, and top-selling sport utility vehicle, the Explorer.
The second-best seller was a pickup, too - the Chevrolet C/K.
“The pickup truck has been a constant,” said Michael Marsden, arts and sciences dean at Northern Michigan University. “It’s the blue jeans of automotive culture.”
Only pickup use and styles have changed. With roomier cabs, they are as likely to be hauling children as bales of hay. They also can come with less-than-rustic features such as remote keyless entry, CD players and leather seats.
Buyers may find even more to like about pickups this year and next year as Chevrolet rolls out the first redesign of its full-size pickups in a decade and Toyota releases an all-new T150.
Still, some auto buffs have a hard time getting excited about the four wheelers.
“What is the most American vehicle? I’m almost embarrassed that it’s a pickup truck,” said Jim Hall, an analyst with AutoPacific Inc. “Pickups are the hamburgers of automobiles.”
But automakers are trying to make sure pickups get proper respect. Ford has held a series of celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the venerable F-Series, including one with a mock 50-foot birthday cake last fall at the Texas State Fair.
Among the devotees at the Texas event was Donna Giebler, a rancher from Gatesville near Waco, who has an F-Series named LeRoy. “In Texas when you have a truck you like, you name it,” she said.
Giebler, 59, said she likes the vehicles for their high ride and ability to haul stuff. “I feel safer in a pickup than I do in a car,” she said.
Reginald Pope, 34, has an F-Series, too. But the computer consultant lives in Ypsilanti, far removed from cattle country, and rarely leaves city or suburban roads.
He said he and his wife were lured to the truck last year after driving sports cars for years.
“When we drove that thing it was just like driving a car,” Pope said. “I just think it’s a very classy truck.”
Paul Morel, Ford’s truck brand manager, said the F-Series is most popular with rural males, but has drawn support from every niche. “People are coming from everywhere,” he said.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Ford launched the F-Series with farmers and laborers in mind.
But the pickup since the 1960s has caught on with campers, hunters and families.
“The pickup truck in a lot of cases has replaced the second car,” said James K. Wagner, a Ford truck historian.
Hall said the popularity lies deep within the American psyche.
“It’s almost a social thing,” he said. “Everyone grabbed a broomstick and pretended to be a cowboy, whether it was in Southhampton or in Harlem.”
Marsden, who has studied automotive culture, said the pickup also represents Americans’ long love affair with the land.
“It’s a beautiful merger of the country and the city,” Marsden said. “We don’t flee from the city, we make the city meet us on our terms.
“What other vehicle would Clint Eastwood have driven in the ‘Bridges of Madison County?’ It was perfect for the image he represented - that sophisticated countryness.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: PICKUP POPULARITY Four of the top ten selling vehicles in the United States last year were pickups: the F-Series, C/K, Ram and Ranger. 1. Ford F-series 2. Chevrolet CK 3. Toyota Camry 4. Honda Accord 5. Ford Explorer 6. Ford Taurus 7. Dodge Ram 8. Honda Civic 9. Chevrolet Cavalier 10. Ford Ranger